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The Big Takeover Issue #93
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Fragile Industry Ears: The Necessity of Overthinking Song Order

13 April 2006

When an artist is in the process of recording or conceptualizing an album, there are so many factors involved besides the quality of the song and performance. Many musicians have admitted to that they kept a better song off an album because it didn’t ‘fit.’ Perhaps the most important question for an artist is whether you want an album to have a singular tone/groove/style or to be more eclectic like the eponymous albums by THE BEATLES, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and NICO, or even THE WHITE STRIPES?

If you choose the latter, more eclectic approach, the question of song order becomes even more important. No longer is it just a matter of strategically placing the catchiest radio-friendly songs first, as Motown often did; you start to envision the ride on which you will take the listener.

Let’s say you have six mid-tempo or slow ballads that emphasize piano and have a similar tone (say WILCO meets LOU REED), but since you like the ebb and flow of an album that alternates between faster/louder and slower/quieter, you’d rather intersperse them with six of your faster numbers than place them all together (and even though some people have told you mixing it up is a silly idea, especially for a band just starting out, no one has been able to sufficiently prove that records of varied styles are harder to sell than the more singular-style kind).

In addition, you also have a faster country rock song, a straight blues tune, an experiment in ’72-’74-era STEVIE WONDER funk clavinet (which you probably won’t be able to use anyway), a full-out rocker reminiscent of THE JAM or BUZZCOCKS and a couple that you’d characterize as post-R.E.M. indie-rock; like DAVID LOWERY swallowing THE DECEMBERISTS when they meet TOM PETTY in the belly of NEIL DIAMOND ’s “You Got To Me.” [Burp! -ed.]

From one perspective this isn’t very eclectic at all (you’re saving your “TOM WAITS and RANDY NEWMAN reluctantly decide to squeeze into a car driven by JONATHAN RICHMAN”-songs for later), but you still may ask yourself how you’re going to be able shape what seems like a mishmash on paper into a coherent, yet thrilling, album. This thought is all the more important because you’re trying to catch the ears of labels, reviewers, and DJs who may give it one half-listen while multitasking, and never make it past the first song, or who may play each song for 30 seconds without giving the album time grow on them (a practice which may explain why so many popular albums don’t hold up to repeated listening).

Given the above selection of songs, the question of genre becomes unavoidable. The tendency for me (if not necessarily everybody in my band even) is to shoot for the college radio crowd, AKA Pitchfork Nation (excuse me, Big Takeover)! Other genre labels, and the scenes they represent, could be accurate descriptions as well. For instance, the No Depression genre, typically embraced by college radio, is not any more ‘college radio’ than it is NPR or even some commercial country stations. There’s some overlap in these two scenes (Wilco and WILL OLDHAM for instance), especially if you compare them to, say, The Source. So you don’t necessarily have to choose, but sometimes it feels like we have to appeal to industry ears that are either timid or fragile; such distinctions matter much more to these people than to us.

And why does it matter so much? Because they think in terms of marketing, and however much science goes into marketing, it rarely gives the potential audience much credit unless the consumers force them into it (and few do, because who wants to ruin the party). So I was talking to my guitarist the other night:

Me: I’ll accept any genre tag they pin on me, but I really want to start the album with the country-rock song; even though it’s not necessarily the best song, it’s the best first song.

Guitarist: But it could set the wrong tone, give people the false impression that there’s even one other country-like song on the album and, frankly, there’s not.

Me: Oh you and your “fragile industry ears” theory. Well, what do you suggest?

Guitarist: I suggest starting with the most rockin’ tune. It kicks the album….

Me: Yeah, but there’s not any other song on the album like that either…

Well, you can see where this is going… More on this tedious but fascinating issue in future weeks.